What we pay attention to

This Sunday, Joey led the dharma discussion drawing from a talk by Sally Clough Armstrong, focusing on ways of remembering mindfulness and compassion when a tendency to blame or negative states of mind arise.

Sally brings interesting references to neuroscience and skillful means for addressing our sometimes negative responses to inevitable unpleasant moments.

The talk is available here:

Below are Joey’s notes:

Sally quoting the Buddha: Whatever we think and ponder upon with become the inclination of the mind.

Sally quoting Jill Taylor Bowles from My stroke of insight: Nothing external to me had the power to take away my peace of mind.

Sally: “…not disowning our negative states of mind but rather “oh, you poor dear, you’ve gotten caught in a stream of negativity.”

Sally: “It takes training”.

Joey’s comments:
Rick Hanlon, neuropsychologist, writes in Hardwiring happiness, that negative thoughts are like Velcro to the mind and positive ones like Teflon because of the inherent negative bias of the mind that developed for our survival.

We needed to be able to make life-saving decisions quickly and efficiently. So our brains evolved with the amygdala performing the quick and dirty assessment of each situation we encounter: does this represent threat or safety?

When we train the mind, this is what we’re needing to move beyond: the reaction and evaluation of threat or safety that is built into our minds because of past conditions rooted in highly charged emotional events.

Imagine a situation in which a little preschooler approaches a teacher who has been safe and kind but who suddenly yells aggressively: “All Preschoolers off the playground right now! It’s time for the older kids to have the playground.” And it feels to the little preschooler that that teacher is yelling directly at her, attacking her. This small moment with a highly emotional charge might combine with other charged moments and conditions that lead to the development of a habit of reacting with fear when needing to approach other people. There may be a belief or thought pattern that develops:” People are unpredictable and scary. I’ll avoid them when I can.” When faced with having to interact with others the mind can get caught in an aversive repetition: “Will I? Won’t I? Will I? Won’t I? Safety? Danger? Will I join the dance?

We are all susceptible to developing schemas as responses to past experiences that may emerge as beliefs about our selves or others, reactions that may seem too strong for the situation at hand but may simply be the result of triggers of past conditions that felt unsafe, body memories of a seemingly threatening situation held in the right hemisphere of the brain and emerging as an impulsive reaction.

So it does take effort, repeated effort and compassion to train the mind. Recently, I’ve found a skillful means I wanted to share with you. Richard Schwartz has developed a model of working with reactions that arise or thoughts of an obsessive or repetitive nature. He has named the model Internal Family Systems.

When those repetitive categories of thoughts that Sally mentions continue to arise, it’s possible to view them as Parts of ourselves rather than our whole self-identity. So expanding on her suggestion of cultivating an attitude of compassion towards ourselves in the face of a negative stream of thoughts, it’s possible to recognize that the stream is a Part of you that is doing it’s very best to keep you safe.

If we actually turn toward the Part that, for example, tends to be critical of ourselves rather than ignore it, try to push it away, or believe it, we can feel where it is in or around our body and address it as if it is it’s own mini self. We can ask it to give us some space so we can be in relation to it in order for us to alleviate its distress. This has the possibility of providing the pause we often talk about but also provides a way of seeing that in spite of an emotionally gripping and believable critic, this is simply a Part of ourselves arising from past emotionally charged conditions.

Once we’ve established a bit of space from our critic or the emotional reactivity or repetitive thought, we can ask compassionately: “What set you off? What are you worried about?” or simply “What’s happening?”

This acknowledgement of the critical or distressed Part of us is often enough to allow that Part to relax. Instead of seeing the critic or emotional reaction with aversion, we offer a welcome. We cultivate compassion rather than alienation. It can become another skillful means of paying attention.